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Documenting the dugongs of Qatar

Documenting the dugongs of Qatar


Lezima Gomes
Doha
When we talk about Qatar and its wildlife, the image that comes to mind is the oryx. But there are many creatures in the wild that we know very little about. One such species is the dugong.
The dugong is a medium-sized strictly marine herbivorous mammal. The Arabian Gulf has the second largest population of dugongs in the world, but little is known about these secretive creatures. ExxonMobil Research Qatar (EMRQ) in collaboration with Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG) and with support from the Ministry of Municipality and Environment (MME) is working on a major project to learn more about and conserve Qatar's dugong population.
Dr Chris Warren leads the Environmental Management and Water Reuse programmes at EMRQ. He has worked with ExxonMobil for the past 10 years in various roles relating to environmental research and project development. With a PhD in Watershed Ecosystems from Trent University in Ontario, Canada, he focused his studies and research on environmental chemistry and engineering principles.
EMRQ was established in Qatar in 2009 with focus on research programmes across environmental management, water reuse, safety and geology."Through our efforts at the centre, we support the Qatar National Vision 2030 and build research capacity in these designated areas. We also work closely with our local and international partners to provide the scientific research needed to develop key technologies that will benefit the oil and gas industry in Qatar and around the world, so that it functions in a safe and environmentally responsible manner," Warren said.
A very important component of EMRQ's work is related to protecting people and preserving Qatar's environment and marine life, including its iconic dugong population. Qatar Tribune's Lezima Gomes spoke with Dr Chris Warren to learn more about the dugong, the research on it, and its findings. Excerpts:

What is the objective of the research?
Our objectives are threefold: 1. To learn more about the population here in Qatar and its potential connection with other dugongs in the Arabian Gulf, in addition to the population's sustainability given its current birth and death rates. 2. To educate Qataris and those living in Qatar that these animals exist in our"backyard," and that they play an important role in the ecosystem. 3. To do our bit in helping conserve Qatar's dugong population for generations to come.

Why and when was the research taken up?
Efforts have been ongoing in Qatar for many years on the Hawksbill Turtle population that nests on the beaches of Qatar's coastline. In 2014, our then Research Director Dr. Jennifer Dupont had the opportunity of meeting with Dr. Christopher Marshall from TAMUG who was working on the turtle project, along with Dr. Mehsin al Ansi from Qatar University (QU).
During discussions, the topic of dugongs arose, particularly the fact that these animals, which are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as"vulnerable," live in the Arabian Gulf and Qatari waters.
We spoke about the initial efforts that were undertaken by the then Ministry of Environment in 2007-2008, with the support of Dolphin Energy, to study the Qatari dugong. It was then that we realised there was an opportunity to develop a detailed research, education and conservation programme to better understand Qatar's dugong population and how we could help protect it.
Initially, a tri-party agreement was signed between EMRQ, Texas A&M University and QU. Over the past three years, efforts have continued, with the invaluable support of the Private Engineering Office (PEO) and the MME.

Was there anything startling that you found in the research?
One of the initially alarming discoveries when we started fieldwork was the significant number of dugongs that were dying and beaching on Qatar's shores we've found approximately 50 stranded animals in the past three years. In some cases, it's obvious that these animals have been impacted by fishing nets or ropes, where they became entangled in them and drowned.
Dugongs are marine mammals, so they come to the water's surface to breathe and then dive to the sea floor to eat seagrass, which is their main source of food. As they move through the water column, they're vulnerable to getting caught in fishing gear.

Tell us about dugongs, their life span, habitat, and diet.
We're still learning a lot about Qatar's dugongs, but in general, they're known to be long-living the oldest recorded dugong was 73 years old! As I mentioned, they're marine mammals that can reach around three metres in length as adults and weigh over 400kg. Their main source of food is sea grass, and as such, their habitat is very closely connected to where sea grass is found. There are dugongs all around Qatar, but in particular there are two main regions one in the northwest between Qatar and Bahrain, and another in the southeast of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. There is only one other main area where dugongs can be found in the Arabian Gulf besides Qatar, and this is offshore Abu Dhabi.

Please describe their reproduction process.
In general, they reach maturity around the age of 10 years. They typically give birth to one calf that then stays with the mother for an extended period possibly three to five years until the mother is ready to have another calf. I like to draw comparisons to humans in the sense that they have few young in their lifetime and expend a lot of time and energy on their young.

What are the other places/countries across the world that they can be found? Are the ones in Qatar any different?
Qatari dugongs are part of a larger group found in the Arabian Gulf which we think is around 6,000 to 7,000 individuals and the second largest group in the world, second only to Australia. Their range extends from Australia to the Rea Sea. However, the Arabian Gulf is the northern most extent of their range. One of our research activities is collecting DNA, which we hope to compare to other populations to understand if there are any differences between them. The environment in the Gulf is extreme in both water temperature and salinity, compared to many other locations, so there may very well be some differences.

What is the level of awareness among people in Qatar about dugongs?
Generally, I would say not many people know about dugongs when we present at schools and for other groups of people. I think the older generations and those that interact more with the sea would have the best chance of being aware of their presence in Qatari waters.

Are dugongs under threat? If so, what are those threats?
As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest anthropogenic challenges is incidental by-catch through fishing activities. It's also possible that some may be hit by passing vessels, but by far the largest issue is likely by-catch.

What is being done to protect them and preserve their habitat?
One of our key objectives at EMRQ is to help conserve the Qatari dugong. As you point out, this is a combination of protecting the animal and equally as important, their habitat. Luckily, we are working closely with the MME and the General Directorate of Natural Reserves, so the right people are working on trying to find the appropriate solutions. Also, communicating the uniqueness of these iconic animals to people in Qatar is very important. I like to think of dugongs as the oryx of the sea.

Are there any interesting things that you have learned during your research?
Dugongs spend much of their time either alone or in small groups. However, they are known to come together in large groups at certain times of the year. The largest group of dugongs ever recorded was off the Qatari shore more than 670 animals. We still don't know exactly why they do this: it may be for heat, as these large groups are found here in the winter when the water is colder, but possibly for feeding, mating or other reasons. This is quite interesting and something we continue to work on understanding.

Are they similar to some other species of animal as well?
The closest living relative of the dugong is the manatee. Although extinct now, the Steller's sea cow, which was the second largest ocean mammal only to the large whales, was a close relative of the dugong.

Is there a way the common man can contribute to their wellbeing?
The most important way to do this is to continue to spread the word about their existence here in Qatar, and to learn about what makes them so special.

Has research contributed to the improvement of their habitat?
We're still working on this aspect through collaborative efforts with our partners. However, as we progress, we'll be working on developing plans for this purpose.

Is there anything you would like to add?
Dugongs play a role in helping maintain healthy sea grass meadows. Sea grass meadows are important fish nurseries and also as a food source for sea turtles. As such, they play an important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, not to mention that they add to the marine biodiversity of the region. As I mentioned earlier, they are IUCN-listed as vulnerable, which suggests that they are facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future.
Another interesting fact about dugongs is that they have cultural significance to the region. As recently as nearly 100 years ago in the Gulf, dugongs were hunted and used for food and as a source of oil. Since their skin is tough and leathery, it was also used for multiple purposes.